This is first about football players, whose politics are much in the news these days. It is next about other athletes, as NBA players and coaches have recently made their opinions known more than before, though still less than the NFL, and minor controversies stir up in baseball or hockey about White House visits, but that's about it. The Olympics occasionally generate some political news. It is something of an irony that those who make their living from an industry whose only purpose is to distract from the mundane, hoping to embody larger stories and even mythologies of the societies they live in, should feel so free to yank us back to the problems of the everyday.
It is more than an irony. It is a contradiction. They undercut the deep foundation of their employment and importance by taking up causes, regardless of which side they take. It is as if we stepped with relief from oppressive and blinding summer sun into a darkened and air conditioned restaurant, only to have the waiters decide that the doors to the kitchen should be opened, that we could feel the heat, endure the headachey fluorescent lights, and see the poverty and possible mistreatment of the kitchen crew.
Next we have the musicians, actors, comedians, directors, and other types of entertainers. They also trade on their celebrity for political causes. There is more justification for this, as artists are expected to express the truths of their people in symbolic form. This is true whether that artist is expressing a majority or minority cry of the heart, whether it is kindly or cruel, religious or worldly, exalted or debased. It it therefore a natural extension for them to express those views in less symbolic, more frank and unmissable ways.
Natural, perhaps, yet just as ironic and contradictory. It was their job to express such things symbolically. "Shut up and sing," as the book says. When artists "want to start a conversation" about, well, anything, they cease at some level to be artists at all. We hardly notice, though, if we agree with their view.
I do understand this. The urge to trade on your celebrity in support of a cause your dearly believe in is fairly automatic. It must seem even a dereliction of duty not to do something for The Cause, or The People, or the Truth. Others will certainly encourage you in loud voices to do exactly that, and regard you as a traitor, self-serving, or cowardly if you do not. Christian groups shove athletically-gifted believers who are barely adults before youth groups, conferences, and benefit functions. One's fame is considered an asset that must be cashed in for the cause. Not very different from paid endorsements for hair restoration or car dealerships, really. I wince to see it, yet it is merely an exaggeration of what we do in a thousand smaller ways throughout our lives. We hope that a favorite uncle might have some influence over a boy going bad, or the babysitter from a decade ago becoming a doctor inspires our easily-discouraged daughter.
Athletes aren't doing anything different than this, they are simply doing it in distilled form. Yet in their case (less so but also true of entertainers), they are sawing off the limb they are sitting on. The rules of their sports are arbitrary, and so their fame is something of an accident. (The popularity of guitars over accordions or glockenspiels could be reversed in a parallel universe.) There is nothing intrinsically important about throwing a ball through a hoop. Their fame rests on an unstable foundation, which they trifle with at their peril.
Boxing was the #2 sport in America not so long ago.
Football cast its lot with the military and patriotic display half a century ago, so much so that it seems automatic, almost inevitable. Yet baseball was the sport of America during WWII. No one remembers which football, basketball, or hockey players went to war. The military and the NFL both doubled-down on this relationship about a decade ago. It has always left me a little cold. I have thought the two should be separate,though I know that mythologies bleed over into each other easily.
Here's some fun, that might have some food for thought as well.